Reviewing the pros and cons of having washboard abs, and the effect on mental health
Depending on your personality, zoning in and getting extremely detailed on getting a low enough body fat percentage for six pack abs will play out differently on your personal happiness.
Let’s face it, regardless of who you are: perfecting your body image to the point where you are counting calories and watching what you eat and drink for months can become obsessive – even for the most well-balanced of people.
There are quite a few posts and videos out there now with titles like “six pack abs destroyed my life” and likewise.
Yes, there are for sure LOADS of people who have gone too far on this journey, and have developed some terrible disorders from it.
Personally, I think in our sensationalist, clickbait, “views=success” world, a lot of this messaging can be overhyped, and should be taken with a grain of salt – in other words – can we speak authentically? With a little genuine truth?
An obsessive behavior can really accentuate some negative personality traits – IF you’re prone to them.
For example, if you have some narcissistic traits within your personality, getting six pack abs, and the associated obsession that comes with it, will only amplify your narcissism.
If you have OCD, or obsessive disorders of some kind, creating an environment where obsession is celebrated is not going to be healthy.
If you are self-conscious, have body image issues, or are looking to a great body to be a magic bullet for your perceived social problems – then becoming obsessive over body fat can be a bad idea.
First off: the pros and cons of having six pack abs
Here is what I consider to be a fair list of pros and cons, from my own personal experience (see this post for the details).
I feel great physically
You get a tightness around waist that’s hard to describe to anyone who’s not ever gotten rid of all that belly fat and love handles. It feels amazing, like you’re a wound coil full of potential energy. You’ll likely not stop running your own hands over your own abs because the sensation is pretty amazing.
You feel lighter, meaner, tighter.
Confidence naturally goes up
Without a doubt, despite already being somewhat fit, and considering myself decent enough in the looks department, getting your body fat down to a low percentage immediately boosts your confidence naturally.
There’s no issues in the changing room, in public, on the beach – and you could wear pretty much whatever you wanted knowing that you’d look good.
Mentally, you feel competitively better than the next man (or woman)
It’s hard to understand this feeling unless you do it yourself, but once you’re down in body fat, you mentally feel superior to those who aren’t as lean as you. It’s as if this hard-earned prize is a visible badge of honour and dedication that many can’t or won’t do.
Guys who do spot your physique in the gym changing rooms or elsewhere visibly appreciate or are taken aback by you, and that’s great with you.
Those bulky fat guys at the gym – you feel like these guys have no discipline and you’re better than them.
You are more attractive
This one I’ve seen completely discredited on other blogs and posts out there – that getting six pack abs doesn’t magically make you attractive, your personality is still the same as it was before, or even worse if you’ve developed an obsession or are constantly thinking/talking about it, and actually, women are attracted to men’s personalities as well as the newly celebrated “dad bod” physique.
Never mind all that. The fact is, if you’ve got a healthy mind, feeling good in your own skin and having a healthy goal in life can only make you more attractive, as your own confidence and success increases.
No, you won’t suddenly change overnight into a Lothario, which is definitely not the point of doing all this in the first place – but you will love yourself and your success for a good while.
Ok, now the negatives.
You don’t feel great physically – sometimes
Actually, you’re hungry a lot because you’re constantly cutting calories. Yes, you can battle this with some strategies like cycling your cutting and bulking, or eating whole foods for more quantity, or drinking a ton of water, or cycling in treats here and there – but in total, over the long run, and as you keep going deeper – because it gets harder and harder to lose more fat, you’ll find yourself digging deeper and deeper, which means less and less calories.
Lack of sleep
This doesn’t happen to everyone, but I’ve experienced this BIG TIME (as well as others I know). New hormonal imbalances, new routines (including eating immediately after waking, etc.) new caloric deprivation thresholds, new lack of minerals and vitamins, and new metabolism all contribute to you sleeping less.
I ended up sleeping around 5 hours a night – sometimes less – when getting into the deeper end of a body fat cut – simply because my body just didn’t need as much sleep. I was still very fully functional, so I don’t want to scare anyone off here – but you are awake at a much earlier hour, and some days, the less sleep can catch up with you. So, instead of laying awake – why not hit the 24 hour gym at 4AM? Which is what ends up happening.
This is a big one, and is one that can creep up on you. I personally didn’t have too much of an issue with this, but it’s well known that a lot of people can take this too far. It makes sense – you’re constantly thinking about your diet, the calories of every meal, snack, drink, of every day, for months on end.
Social life gets harder and less fun
When you’re deep into cutting, you just aren’t able to go out and have fun. You can’t go and get drinks with friends (except the infamous soda water and lime – squeezed fresh, never concentrate); you can’t really go and get dinner with people unless they allow you to de-customise every dish until you end up with poached chicken and broccoli; and actually, they start not calling you as much – because you’re just not as fun when you’re not drinking.
And even if you’re running with a clean, non-drinking crowd, you’re irritable, hungry, and thinking about your next meal / gym session.
It’s not impossible, and obviously depends on your social sphere and needs, but it can take its toll, and the bottom line is you have to give up something – some amount of fun – to maintain this lifestyle.
My mental health experience with getting six pack abs – so was it all worth it?
To cut to the chase: yes, and no.
Apologies for the vague answer, but it really is a case of both: there are some benefits, and there are some detriments.
Personally, I highly recommend everyone does it once in their life to understand what it takes, and what it feels like – so that you can say you’ve accomplished something you never thought you could.
But it gets boring, for me anyway – I enjoy trying new foods and restaurants and love not having to think so much about my body fat – and going on holiday while counting calories is a bit of a drag.
I would then recommend you don’t worry about it for most of the year, or even years, and enjoy your life (but not too much, don’t stray too far from the baseline).
Then – I’d say yes, do it again routinely, periodically, as determined by your own happiness.
Me personally, I last cut two years ago, and I’ve not really missed it all too much, until recently. With less exercise due to lockdown, I’m starting to see the effects and think a little more discipline would be good at the moment – so I might just start another cycle soon.
But that’s for each person to determine.